Formation and maintenance of high-nitrate, low pH layers (Waite et al., Biogeosciences)

Formation and maintenance of high-nitrate, low pH layers in the eastern Indian Ocean and the role of nitrogen fixation

A. M. Waite, V. Rossi, M. Roughan, B. Tilbrook, P. A. Thompson, M. Feng, A. S. J. Wyatt, and E. J. Raes

We investigated the biogeochemistry of low dissolved oxygen high-nitrate (LDOHN) layers forming against the backdrop of several interleaving regional water masses in the eastern Indian Ocean, off northwest Australia adjacent to Ningaloo Reef. These water masses, including the forming Leeuwin Current, have been shown directly to impact the ecological function of Ningaloo Reef and other iconic coastal habitats downstream. Our results indicate that LDOHN layers are formed from multiple subduction events of the Eastern Gyral Current beneath the Leeuwin Current (LC); the LC originates from both the Indonesian Throughflow and tropical Indian Ocean. Density differences of up to 0.025 kg m−3 between the Eastern Gyral Current and the Leeuwin Current produce sharp gradients that can trap high concentrations of particles (measured as low transmission) along the density interfaces. The oxidation of the trapped particulate matter results in local depletion of dissolved oxygen and regeneration of dissolved nitrate (nitrification). We document an associated increase in total dissolved carbon dioxide, which lowers the seawater pH by 0.04 units. Based on isotopic measurements (δ15N and δ18O) of dissolved nitrate, we determine that ~ 40–100% of the nitrate found in LDOHN layers is likely to originate from nitrogen fixation, and that, regionally, the importance of N-fixation in contributing to LDOHN layers is likely to be highest at the surface and offshore.

Coral reef phytoplankton fluxes (Wyatt et al., MEPS)

Particulate nutrient fluxes over a fringing coral reef: relevant scales of phytoplankton production and mechanisms of supply

Alex S. J. Wyatt, Ryan J. Lowe, Stuart Humphries, Anya M. Waite

Seasonal observations of phytoplankton uptake at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, reinforce the importance of particulate organic nitrogen (PON) and carbon (POC) in reef nutrient budgets and identify wave action and the dynamics of regional currents (over a range of temporal and spatial scales) as important factors determining plankton supply to the reef. Phytoplankton uptake rates, calculated from declining chlorophyll a concentrations as water moved over the reef, appeared to be near the physical limits of mass transfer. Phytoplankton-derived PON flux of 2 to 5 mmol N m–2 d–1 was on the order of that typical for dissolved N uptake—confirming that particle feeding may supply the N missing in reef N budgets—while POC flux of 14 to 27 mmol C m–2 d–1 was on the order of net community metabolism. Phytoplankton supply was highly variable at daily-to-seasonal time scales in response to the dynamics of a regional current system dominated by the downwelling-favourable Leeuwin Current (LC). Acceleration of the LC in the austral autumn may supply as much phytoplankton to the reef as sporadic upwelling associated with the Ningaloo Current (NC) in summer. The ocean catchment concept is introduced as a basis for examining the spatial scale of pelagic processes influencing benthic systems: every day, Ningaloo may completely consume the phytoplankton over 87 km2 of LC water, compared to only 20 km2 of NC water. Production within this catchment appears insufficient to maintain offshore phytoplankton concentrations, and advection of remotely sourced production into the catchment is required to balance reef uptake. A functional dependence by reef organisms on externally sourced ocean productivity increases the potential scale at which human- or climatically induced changes may affect reef communities and suggests that processes such as changes in offshore currents and plankton communities require further consideration in reef-level biogeochemistry.

KEY WORDS: Ningaloo Reef · Nutrient budget · Oceanographic forcing · Particulate organic carbon · Particulate organic nitrogen · Leeuwin Current · Ocean catchment · Upwelling